OTTAWA Senator Chantal Petitclerc shared her own experience with a disability when she tried on Tuesday to counter criticism of a bill to expand access to medical care while dying.
Bill C-7 has been widely condemned by disability rights advocates who claim the legislation sends the message that living with a disability is a fate worse than death.
They also argue that people with disabilities, especially black, indigenous and racialized people, are directly or indirectly pressured to end their lives prematurely because of attitudes, poverty and lack of support services.
But Petitclerc, a former Paralympian who sponsors the Senate bill, used her own experience to argue that the bill strikes a balance between protecting the vulnerable and respecting the individual’s autonomy in seeking medical help to end intolerable suffering creates.
At the age of 13, she lost the use of her legs when a barn door fell on her. At the time, she said her mother was recently divorced, had a low-wage job and was looking after three young children.
Her mother “had to carry me up and down to the second floor of our apartment building because we couldn’t afford to move,” said Petitclerc, a member of the Independent Senators Group, as she opened the final debate on the bill.
“I may have the privilege of being here in the Canadian Senate, but I never forget where I come from and I know exactly what it is to be in a situation of extreme vulnerability.”
At the same time, Petitclerc said the bill created a strong memory in her of the excruciating pain she suffered in the weeks following her accident as the nurses regularly moved her around her hospital bed to avoid bruising.
If she were ever in a position where she was “in pain that was unbearable but incurable, I too would fight for the right” to seek medical help in order to die, Petitclerc said.
Bill C-7 would expand access to euthanasia to excruciatingly suffering people who are not at the natural end of their lives, aligning the law with a 2019 Supreme Court ruling of Quebec.
Petitclerc said critics had “implied that access would simply or not be monitored” and tried to dispel that thought.
“That’s just not the case,” she said.
She pointed out that a person must be a competent adult with a serious and incurable disease, in an advanced state of irreversible decline, causing excruciating, permanent suffering that cannot be alleviated by treatment acceptable to the patient.
For people who are not near the natural end of their lives, Petitclerc said the bill would provide additional safeguards.
Two doctors would have to agree that the person met the criteria for an assisted death and was not pressured in any way. The assessment period would need to be at least 90 days, during which the patient would need to be informed of all alternative means of alleviating their suffering, including counseling, community services and palliative care, and consultations with professionals who provide these services.
“I think it is important that we keep track of all of these steps and recognize how thorough, rigorous and safe this process is,” said Petitclerc.
However, Senator Kim Pate, another member of the Independent Senators Group, said she could not ignore the reality of people who have been or have been because of “abusive, racist, sexist” and other discriminatory health care treatments Poverty and lack of support institutionalized and marginalized.
She suggested that the bill respect the autonomy of “white, affluent and non-disabled” people at the expense of the lives of more vulnerable people.
“Bill C-7 will expand rights for some at the expense of increasing inequality for others,” said Godfather, calling on senators to question their “own fears and prejudices.”
Senator Jim Munson, a member of the Senate Progressive Group, said he had spent his Senate career advocating for the rights of disabled Canadians. But while agreeing that the government must do more to improve services for people with disabilities, Munson said he couldn’t ignore the rights of people like Nicole Gladu and Jean Truchon.
Gladu and Truchon, two Quebecers with disabilities, challenged the legal ban on assisted death for people who are not yet near the natural end of life. Judge Christine Baudouin’s 2019 decision that the restriction violated the couple’s constitutional rights sparked Bill C-7.
Senators have already passed five amendments to the law, two of which would expand access to euthanasia even further than the government proposed.
One change would limit the proposed blanket ban on assisted dying for people suffering solely from mental illness to 18 months. Another possibility would enable people who fear to develop dementia or other competence-eroding conditions to submit applications for euthanasia in advance.
Conservative Senator Denise Batters was against the original bill, but she said the Senate amendments “blow the bill wide open”.
“I’m afraid you have set a runaway train in motion and the consequences will be dire,” she said.
Batters predicted the bill will be struck down for violating the rights of people with disabilities. She said they shout “to be heard that they don’t want this so-called benefit”.
“What they want from the government is not a quick route to death, but the necessary financial and other support to enable them to lead a decent life.”
In contrast, Conservative Senator Claude Carignan said the changes were an improvement. Still, he believes the bill is unconstitutional because it creates unequal access to euthanasia: a loose set of rules for people who are close to death and a stricter set of rules for those who are not.
One of the Senate’s jobs is to make sure that the legislation is constitutional, argued Carignan. “So if we are certain that a law is unconstitutional, we should either change it or reject it. That is our duty.”
Several senators urged the government to accept the Senate’s changes. They found that in 2016 the government did not listen to the House of Lords when the Senate asked them to remove the eligibility requirement that a person’s natural death must be reasonably foreseeable – the provision that has since become unconstitutional.
Senator Rosemary Moodie predicted that some of the Senate’s amendments are likely to be rejected by the government again this time around. The senators then have to decide whether to defy the will of the elected House of Commons or to dig on their heels.
Senators will wrap up the debate on the bill on Wednesday before final voting on the amended version later that day.
The government wants the law, passed by February 26, to meet a three times extended deadline set by the court.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on February 16, 2021.